Mikheil Saakashvili was hailed, wrongly, as a beacon of democracy when he became president of Georgia a decade ago. It is only now, after Sunday’s election of a successor completed the country’s first peaceful transfer of power via the ballot box, that he deserves some of the praise.
Today’s favorite Georgian Democrat is billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose party won power Sunday and who has promised to create a “perfect European democracy.” Yet this adulation, like Saakashvili’s a decade ago, is premature.
Ivanishvili has performed a service for Georgians: His money and commitment -- he claims to have spent $3 billion of his personal fortune on public projects -- helped to unseat a government that had grown arrogant and overbearing. It would be a mistake, however, to ascribe this as his only motive.
There are also the twin specters of power and revenge, common to all politics but especially corrosive in Georgia and other former Soviet republics. Ivanishvili has said that Saakashvili will probably face prosecution for abuses in office once he steps down next month, as have 35 former government officials arrested since Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition won parliamentary elections last year. This kind of selective justice, which the European Union is battling in nearby Ukraine, is damaging foreign investment and economic growth.
So while Saakashvili has twice accepted electoral defeat -- in the parliamentary polls last year and on Sunday, when Georgian Dream’s Giorgi Margvelashvili beat his presidential candidate with 62 percent of the vote -- the incentive for future Georgian leaders to hold free elections and go quietly is being destroyed. Ivanishvili is setting a precedent that equates losing power with disgrace and prison.
Ivanishvili said last month that he plans to leave office and appoint a substitute when Saakashvili goes. That sounds admirably selfless, except that Ivanishvili also says he’ll be “keeping tabs on the government,” making it unclear if he’ll really give up power.
Yes, Georgia will now have two mercifully uncharismatic leaders -- Margvelashvili and whoever succeeds Ivanishvili as prime minister -- with a more balanced distribution of powers between them. It’s likely, however, that Ivanishvili will remain the power behind the scenes while maintaining the business interests underpinning a fortune that at $6.3 billion amounts to more than a third of the country’s $15.8 billion gross domestic product.
Saakashvili’s pro-Western rhetoric misled many in the U.S. to believe that a man who called Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Josip Broz Tito role models was a democrat. He wasn’t, though he turned a failed state run by warlords and criminal gangs into a relatively normal country with a functioning budget and a growing economy. He achieved this at great cost to civil liberties, media freedoms and the democratic process -- not to mention a disastrous war with Russia in 2008 -- and paid for those failures with defeat.
Ivanishvili has also made a contribution to Georgia’s future, yet he shouldn’t be mistaken for the democrat he claims to be, either. He is buying calm by using a weak judiciary to crush political opposition, creating a political system in which he will wield power without accountability.
Georgia, an important transit country for energy, remains the most promising nation in the Caucasus in which to create a market economy and open society. European and U.S. officials should use the prospect of greater integration and investment to encourage Georgia to be more democratic and transparent. They might start by persuading the president-elect to demonstrate his independence by ending the judicial assault on the opposition.
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